Tuesday 29 March 2011

Hothouse Flower, Lucinda Riley

Hothouse Flower is another Richard and Judy Book Club choice, and the seemingly obligatory "green one" with a cover design of hedges and a door, gate or archway, which tells two stories from two eras which turn out to be linked, probably by an old family in a huge English country house. A few years ago we had Kate Morton's The House at Riverton and in the autumn was Rachel Hore's A Place of Secrets. I found myself wondering why Richard and Judy seemed to choose someone else's version of the same story - at least, the same framing story. Like in A Place of Secrets, Hothouse Flower starts in the modern day, when a newly widowed woman - this time a concert pianist called Julia - retreats to Norfolk, where she grew up descended from staff at an old house, Wharton Park. There, she meets a kind and handsome young man and discovers an old diary.

I took a while to get into Hothouse Flower, as it all felt very familar. I clearly found it quite slow at the beginning as I was ruthlessly picky about the style, noticing run-on sentences and finding the dialogue quite unnatural. It wasn't until we were sent back in time, through the discovery of the diary of Lord Harry Crawford of Wharton Park, that I got immersed in the story itself. We're taken back in time to upper-class society in 1939, young debutantes preparing for "the Season" and looking for husbands, against the clashing backdrop of oncoming war. We follow the courtship and marriage of Harry Crawford and Olivia Drew-Norris, but the couple can barely get to know each other before Harry is whisked off to fight in the Second World War.

We don't get to see much of the War itself, instead, after an interlude concentrating on Julia's twenty first century romance with the current Lord of Wharton Park, the book skips forward to 1945, when Harry is released from being a prisoner of war in Thailand. Riley doesn't dwell on Harry and the other men's suffering, but instead shows their effects on Harry afterwards, as he recovers from serious illness. There are gorgeous descriptions of ife in Bangkok in the aftermath of the war, and through Harry's affair with a hotel employee, Lidia, Riley explores the conflicts that can occur between love and duty. With Rachel Hore's novel, my one complaint was that everything was resolved too easily, with too many tidy coincidences tying up the loose ends. Lucinda Riley does avoids this trap, with her plots getting messy, seemingly with no good ending. I found it somewhat uncomfortable reading at times, with the troubling suspicion that the author wanted to take the side of the adulterous couple, that sexual love should rule at the cost of everything else. Then, back in the 21st century, Julia finds herself in a situation that seems to have no happy ending. The plot gradually draws together the strands of past and present, with plenty of twists in the tale, echoes of past in present, before the two stories become parts of a whole.

The House At Riverton - Kate Morton
A Place of Secrets - Rachel Hore
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
Atonement - Ian McEwan

1 comment:

  1. It's amazing how those covers look alike! I do get this feeling regularly these days when I'm reading a book: "Oh, another book about this or that in which the protagonist does X and...".

    Not very original, but I guess the idea is that if people buy one of these books, they'll spend money on the next one, too!


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